Process-ing

I had been trying to get back into the swing of writing consistently, plopping down 300 words a day in front of all of you, following Anne Lamott’s suggestion to just get them on the page. Every day I was stumbling along obediently, in true teacher fashion, modeling what I hoped my students would do — dump out the story; clean it up later.

I wasn’t liking any of what I was writing, but I believed that if I kept at it, I would eventually get some gold.

About that time, the group of ladies that I meet with for breakfast suggested that we begin reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.  I wasn’t with them when they made the decision, but I got a text with the title that the others had chosen. We’ve read many books together already: Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way, Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, and Brene’ Brown’s Braving the Wilderness among them. We often make our selection based on a hunch one of us has that a book going to be good. Without fail, each of the books has served almost as a guide to the narratives of our individual lives — just the thing we needed to hear at a particular time.

For example, when we read The Broken Way, one of us was walking her mother through her last days, another was hearing for the first time the brutal details of a horrible event in a family member’s history, and another was learning that her husband’s cancer had returned.  We were collectively broken, and Ann Voskamp helped us not run from it, but sit in it.

We read Braving the Wilderness against the backdrop of a highly divided nation and discussed how we could be open to conversations with people who don’t agree with us and how we must be brave enough to do this crucial work.

We’ve come to expect that when one of us suggests a book, we should all just jump on board because each of the books we’ve read have guided our conversations and shaped our hearts. Over and over, in the space of a morning-dark living room, we have together been changed.

So why, when I got the text about The Artist’s Way did I turn up my nose?  Well, besides being stubborn by nature, I hadn’t heard the reason for this choice.  And, to be honest, the word ‘artist’ in the title came with a whole bunch of associations that I didn’t feel connected to. Finally, my work schedule had been such that I figured, “Yeah, maybe my season with this group is done. This one probably isn’t for me.”

And so I didn’t buy the book.  I just kept tossing out three hundred words a day like magical seeds that might one day sprout into something.

Then a few weeks later, one Sunday morning at church, one of my breakfast club friends said, “Aren’t you loving this book?  I can’t believe how much I love all the writing!”

Wait. What?

“The writing?” I said.  “I’ve gotta admit, I haven’t bought the book yet, what kind of writing are you talking about?”

“Oh, my gosh, you’ll love it! You have to commit to writing three pages every morning. I keep getting up in the middle of the night, and I can’t believe all the things I’m putting on the page.”

As she’s talking, I’m opening the Amazon app on my phone, searching for the title, and clicking “purchase”.

“Really? I didn’t know it involved writing. I guess I thought it was going to be about art.”

“No!  It’s about the artist inside of all of us. Oh, Kristin, you’ve got to read this book. I’m telling you, you’re going to love it.”

“Well, I just purchased it. So, I’ll start this week.”

And then the book arrived.  I opened to the introduction, because I’m one of those people who reads introductions, and I just didn’t like the tone of the author. She sounded very know-it-ally, and I just couldn’t. So I set the book on the table next to where I usually write and walked away.

For a week I didn’t write anything. Granted, we were busy at work and I didn’t have a lot of steam left when I got home, and getting up extra early in the morning seemed out of the question.

Until I found myself writing this around 2am:

Technically it’s morning. It’s the middle of the night. Up with pain and brain again. I grumbled about this book today — didn’t want to get it in the first place — dumb title.  Irrelevant. Then the self-important tone of the intro made me want my money back. But I’m not even through the first chapter and I know that Julie Cameron is right. If I write — actually write — three pages every morning, I will create an opening.  

And I started getting up every day at 5:45 — yes, 5:45 — to use a pen and a notebook to write at least three pages. And, like my friend, I’ve been amazed at what has shown up on the page. I’m not censoring, because I’m not writing for an audience. Instead, I am letting whatever is in me come out. Some days I’m writing about things long past. Other days I’m scratching out my current to-do list. I’m writing anger and anxiety and regret and sadness and hope and prayer.  I’m filling my second spiral notebook with no intention of accomplishing anything other than creating an opening.

I met with the breakfast club girls this week. Four of the five of us are writing these pages each morning (or sometimes in the middle of the night).  The one who isn’t said, “So, you’re writing?”  And the rest of us practically pushed each other out of the way to share how profound the experience has been. Then, I sheepishly admitted, “I’m only on chapter two of the actual reading.”  Surely by now, I thought, two months later, everyone else would be almost finished with the book.

“Me, too!” one said.

“I’m only on chapter four,” said another.

And it dawned on me — getting through the book is not the point. This book is not about finishing, it’s about being open to the process. And that is the message of relevance this time around. Just like every other book we’ve read, this one is speaking into our individual narratives. One of us is learning how to be a widow. Another is walking into retirement in a new home in a new community. One is about to become a grandmother for the first time. Another is navigating the comings and goings of young adult children. Me? I’m discovering after thinking that my professional career was over, that I might just have another round in me.

We’re all in phases that aren’t really about arriving or finishing; they are more about being, practicing, living, and breathing through the process.

So, it’s 6:32 am, and I’m spending this morning’s time to reflect, because, writing three pages every morning isn’t so magical that I can’t take a break to put my fingers on keys. I’ve created enough space to see that I can allow myself space.  And that is some kind of gold.

Psalm 5:3

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.

Old dog, new trick

I worked on my last blog post, “Choosing Community” for a couple of weeks — drafting, re-drafting, revising, and deleting. It was late Sunday morning, and finally satisfied with what I had written, I decided to publish. During the last hour or so of wordsmithing and fine-tuning, I had noticed a message in the upper right hand corner of my drafting screen; it was in a red font that probably even used the word ‘warning’. I think it said something to the effect that my ‘latest changes hadn’t been saved’. I shrugged it off and clicked the ‘publish’ button. Hm. Nothing happened. Ok, I thought, I guess I’ll refresh the screen, then the ‘publish’ button will surely work.

Click.

Gasp!

My latest changes had really not been saved. (Imagine that!) The last hour or two of work was lost. “I feel sick!” I said out loud. “Why didn’t I copy and paste to Word before I tried to refresh the screen? How am I going to recreate what I had? Why can’t I just slow down once in a while?”

I’ve had many of these kinds of moments in my fifty-two years of life.

So many.

Why didn’t I just look in the rearview mirror before I backed out of the garage into the car that was parked behind me? 

Why didn’t I let the housecleaning wait while I took a short nap? 

Why did I use that tone when I spoke to that child?

Why did I drive in that snowstorm? 

How did I miss that?  What was I thinking?  What is wrong with me?

Sometimes late at night, like tonight, I lie down to try to sleep, and as I close my eyes, I  see a replay of all the missteps and poor choices I have made in my life.  It’s like watching a blooper reel, only I’m not laughing.

Instead, I’m fretting. My heart rate is increasing. I’m finding it hard to breathe.

If only I had _____________, then ___________________.

Over and over and over again.

Why do I punish myself so? Where did I get the idea that I would never make mistakes–that I would be a perfect daughter, friend, mother, wife, employee?  Who told me that every mistake I make would have dire and irrevocable consequences for me and all the people in my life?  I know who — me, that’s who.

I let everything weigh too. darn. much.  I’m still kicking myself for a frustrated comment I made to one of my kids around 2001.  Seriously.

As my therapist says, my expectations of myself are so high, not even I can see them.

So tonight, on the eve of my fifty-second birthday, I am deciding it’s time for a change.  This old dog is about to learn a new trick.

Today and yesterday, as I was driving to and from work, appointments, and errands, I was listening to an episode of the podcast Invisibilia, called “Emotions” (if you’d like to listen to it click here).  The episode discusses a different way to look at emotions (most of which was over my head but some of which was quite healing and liberating).  One liberating part was the idea that emotions are learned and so can be re-learned or re-directed.  The podcast, which cites the research of a professor at Northeastern University, in no way implies that emotions should be stifled or disregarded. (I’ve tried that strategy, thankyouverymuch.)   Instead, it suggests that we often experience emotions in light of constructs that we have been taught or have believed about ourselves or about the world.  For instance, I have, for whatever reason, long held the unspoken belief that I have to be right, even perfect — getting it wrong is unacceptable.  This simple subliminal construct — ‘I need to be right’ — has shaped the way I have experienced failure.  If I miss an item on a test, let down a friend, or break a glass while doing dishes (which I do about once a week), I have failed.  Imagine all the mistakes an average human makes in any given day and you will have a rough estimate of how many times a day I consciously or unconsciously give myself the message that I am unacceptable.

Yeah.  It’s pretty toxic.

Now imagine if I shifted my thinking to be based on the construct that ‘All of life is a series of missteps that provide opportunities for growth.’   If I lived my life based on this construct, I would expect myself to make several mistakes during the day,  and rather than judging or belittling myself, I would instead search around each ‘oops’ for the growth or learning opportunity. I would make no fewer or no more mistakes, I would just have a different emotional experience.  Instead of viewing a torturous blooper reel when I close my eyes,  I might drift off to sleep watching a highlight tape.

Sound too Pollyanna-ish? I don’t think so.  I think it sounds life-changing.

Get this — on Sunday, after I took a few minutes to accept the fact that my ‘final draft’ was evaporated, I sat back down and finished my blog post for the second time.  It didn’t turn out the same as the lost version. As a matter of fact, as I was rewriting, I was still processing my thoughts about community, and I wrote myself to some different ideas than I had in the previous version.  My mistake allowed me an opportunity to think a bit further about my experiences in community.   My ideas had more time to flesh out before I finally hit ‘publish’.

Before I had even listened to the podcast, I had been provided an example of the concept that it was presenting.

Yesterday morning, a friend and I had a quick exchange of text messages which ended with her saying, “I don’t believe in coincidence,” and me responding, “Neither do I.”

This morning my first errand was to drive to a hair appointment before work.  In autopilot, I took the exit that I typically take to work which was not in the direction of the hair salon.  The exit ramp landed me in the middle of a traffic jam.  I was at a juncture — I could belittle myself for not paying attention, or I could lean back in my seat and soak up the podcast. (Yes, I was at that very moment listening to the podcast about shifting mental constructs to allow for different emotional experiences.)   The funny thing is, I knew it was a juncture.  I took a deep breath and thought to myself, “Ok, I guess we’re gonna go this way today.”

It’s a small step toward a huge change.  I am not expecting that I will notice each and every juncture like this. Because mental constructs reside deep beneath the consciousness, they have the power to shape our experience in very subtle ways. I’m going to miss some opportunities; I’m going to make some mistakes.

Nevertheless, I am hoping over time to shift from self-deprecation to tender grace.  It’s gonna take some time, but I do believe this old dog can learn this new trick.

Romans 12:2

“be transformed by the renewing of your mind”

 

 

 

How the Health are You?

A friend of mine used to ask me this every time she saw me. It made me laugh.  I was just a kid, and I liked how she, an adult, was playing with language and ‘getting away with’ saying a ‘bad word’.

Who knew, way back then, that questions of health would one day dominate my life?  Who knew that I would spend years trying to discover what the health is wrong with me and how I can remedy the problem or at least minimize its effects?

But guys, I have relatively good news!  After five years of trial and error — testing, medication, treatment, side effects, etc. — we have discovered a strategy that, at least for now, is reducing my symptoms!

Let me pause here and give my disclaimer that every body is different, no one treatment works the same for every person, and certainly this is just my story.  I am in no way suggesting that your strategy for managing your health is inappropriate or that you should alter it in any way.  

I haven’t written about my health since last summer when I was doing a trial of Cosentyx.  After a over a year of no medical intervention for my illness, which had been labelled psoriatic arthritis and/or fibromyalgia, I had gone to a new rheumatologist who, at least initially, promised hope for reduced pain, better mobility, and less fatigue.  She felt that Cosentyx was a miracle drug and that I would certainly see dramatic results perhaps even with the first dose.  I was so excited!  After four years of pain and fatigue that limited my everyday life, I was looking forward to ‘getting back to normal’!

Well, I did see a dramatic effect, but it was not the one I was looking for.  Cosentyx made me an emotional wreck — I mean a serious emotional wreck.  I could barely function, particularly when the doses were back-to-back in the initial ‘loading’ period.  I was irrational, depressed, impulsive, and downright mean.   Nevertheless, I continued through that initial phase hoping to strike the promised gold; it never surfaced.  I stayed on Cosentyx for six months with no real improvement.

My doctor, suspecting a different diagnosis of degenerative arthritis, next recommended that I visit a pain management clinic.  I have been very opposed to this from the start.  Remember that prior to this illness, I had been a pretty avid runner for about 10 years.  I had run 5-6 days a week and completed two half-marathons.  I was in pretty great shape up until I started noticing joint pain and extreme fatigue.  I did not want to resign myself to a life of pain meds — I wanted to get better!  I wanted to find the source of the problem, fix it, and get back to my life!  My previous doctor had also recommended pain management; that’s when I had decided to try  homeopathy.  Homeopathy offered me hope and agency but no true change.

Anyway, I digress.  Last fall, when my current rheumatologist recommended I go to the pain management clinic, she suggested I try a steroid shot in my sacroiliac joint — the biggest source of my pain.  This sounded different to me.  She was not suggesting that I take NSAIDS for the rest of my life or that I take opioids or some other form of pain medication.  She was just suggesting a steroid injection.  I was willing to give that  a try.

With the very first injection I noticed a change — I didn’t have such a high degree of pain or such dramatic fatigue.  In fact, I was moving around more easily and having more energy.  After my second injection a month later, my chiropractor and physical therapist both noticed structural differences — my spine adjusted more easily, my muscles seemed more relaxed, and my posture was more erect.  After the third injection just two weeks ago, I notice that I have more endurance as I move through my days and I sleep more comfortably at night.

For the first time in five years, I have noticed a significant change in my ability to function!

Now, I will say that I am cautious in celebration.  First, I am only two and a half months into this treatment.  I do not know how long it will last.  In fact, after the third shot, the medical team said that I should call them “as needed”.  What does that mean?  Will my relief last a month? Two months?  a year?  What I am told is that everyone is different.  Some people get relief for months; some get relief for much longer.

The second reason that I am cautious is that I do not want to go back to my soldiering ways.  My illness has helped me, through trial and error, find a better pace for my life. I don’t try to cram twenty hours of living into every day any more.  I find time for work, but I also find time to rest.  I have built boundaries into my life that never existed before. I have more time with my husband, more availability for my kids and grandkids, and more margin to manage the unexpected stuff that arises in life.  I don’t want to lose this balance as my health improves.

I still believe that this journey of the last five years has been a lesson designed uniquely for me.  The way I was living my life previous to this illness was a path of my own making — I was kicking butts and taking names. I was not caring for the others in my life or, least of all, myself.  I don’t want to lose what I’ve learned in any level of recovery.

So, for now, I will continue the practices that have sustained me this far:

  •  A commitment to daily Scripture reading — this has been a calming anchor to my days.  I listen to a daily ‘dose’ on a YouVersion Bible reading plan every morning as I move through my routine.  It’s a small thing that makes a huge difference.
  • Regular visits with my chiropractor and physical therapist who have been my coaches and supporters for going on three years now.  I can’t say enough good about these two.
  • Yoga, a healthful eating regimen, and walking.  Daily intentional care of my physical body helps maintain both my physical and emotional health.
  • Writing — putting my thinking on a page with a commitment to total transparency has been an accountability that contributes to my emotional and physical health.
  • Psychological therapy — a once a week discussion with a trained professional who helps me sort out the healthy and unhealthy messages I am giving myself.  I am always surprised by the interrelationship between physical and mental health; it cannot be overstated.
  • A renewed commitment to prayer — this seems to be the hardest for me.  I am so used to muscling through and finding my own solutions.  Turning to prayer is a highly intentional act right now.  I am praying that it becomes more automatic over time.

I sometimes joke that taking care of myself is a part-time job.  It takes a lot of effort.  However, I have learned that if I have any hope of caring for the people I love or for being effective with my students, I have got to oxygenate myself first.  It’s not selfish; it’s a healthy practice that enables me to do the things I love.  It honors the Creator to care for what He created.

Jeremiah 17:14

Heal me, Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise.

The Sum of the Lesson

In education, when teachers have identified a learning objective, they design instruction in such a way that the student encounters the content in multiple settings using multiple modalities so that the student’s likelihood of achieving mastery is increased. For example, when a child is learning the alphabet, he might see the letters, say the letters, and sing the letters.  He might write the letters with his finger on his desk or in the air before practicing with a pencil on paper.  In life, I have found that the lessons I most need to learn are presented to me across various contexts through various means until I finally throw my hands up and declare, “Ok, Ok, I see what’s happening here!”  At that point, I typically sit down and write about these observations so that 1) I can fully process them,  and 2) I can create a public record of my learning in an attempt to hold myself accountable.

Today’s Lesson: Time, Tension, and Technology

Sometime last fall, I discovered that I often felt anxious around bedtime.  I would lie down and begin to have restless thoughts about stuff that hadn’t crossed my mind during the day or even during the past several months or years.  I’d begin to wonder if I had been a good enough mother — if I had made enough home-cooked meals, had enough candid conversations, or provided my kids with the lessons and assurances that breed confidence and independence.  Then I’d move on to wondering whether I’d been a good enough wife, friend, sister, daughter, teacher, etc.  I would fuss and stew over conversations and decisions that had taken place years ago, coming to no peace, of course, but rather escalating my anxiety further.  I wouldn’t say I ever had a full-fledged anxiety attack, but these anxious thoughts were keeping me awake at night.

About this same time, I started seeing studies and reports about the increase in anxiety among teens, children, and young adults and some researchers’ theories that such anxiety was tied to the amount of time that kids spend on social media now that practically everyone always has a Smartphone in his or her hand. I got to thinking — I have a Smartphone in my hand most of the time, too.  In fact, I often play Words With Friends, scroll through Facebook, read my Twitter feed, and check emails right up until bedtime.  What if I took a break from that habit to see what impact it has on my bedtime anxiety?

To answer that question,  I began to conduct some rather informal research of my own — a private and inconsistent case study.  It didn’t take long for me to come to the conclusion that I feel less anxious when I don’t use my phone right up until bedtime.  I know, I know, this is a mind-blowing discovery.

In the midst of my ‘study’, I kept finding myself encountering content reinforcing my conclusion.  I heard a podcast that, among other topics, talked about the need for boundaries in the use of technology.  I had a conversation with my therapist about technology addiction. A friend shared a YouTube video about the impact of devices on our sense of peace. I read articles.  I examined my life. I was convicted.

However, although I realized the benefit of using my phone less, I routinely fell back into old habits. And I’ve continued to have anxious thoughts.

One thread of anxiety I have been experiencing is related to growing older. At 51 I am hardly old, but I’ve begun to have thoughts (late at night when most unsettling thoughts plague me) that I’ve already lived more than half of my life, that my body will never again be as fit and agile as it once was, that other people must look at me, seeing my gray hair and aging body, and think thoughts about me that I probably thought about people older than me when I was much younger.  I’ve begun to think about what I want to do with “the rest of my career” and to discuss retirement options with my husband.  For some reason the thought that time is running out and the realization that life actually comes to an end sometimes pop up even when it is not my bedtime.

Ironically enough, one thing I do sometimes to ‘quiet’ the anxious thoughts is to get out my phone, play a game, check social media sites, and respond to emails.  It’s a Catch-22.

For Christmas, one of my children got me a book, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman.  The other night before bed, I lay down and opened to the first tale. Reading stories has always been  a calming way for me to end the day.  Much of what I read at bedtime is what I call “candy bar fiction” —  stuff I can consume and forget about.  The goal of such reading is not to get deep; it’s to fall asleep.  To that end, I opened the book and began to read the two-page tale “Sum”.  The tale suggests that when we die we relive all of our life experiences but that they are re-arranged so that similar events are clumped together.  “You spend two months driving the street in front of your house,” it says, and “six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line.”  As I read, I started thinking, If this really happened, how much time would I spend scrolling through Facebook, playing Words With Friends, having a cup of tea with my husband, reading good books, appreciating the sunshine?  

It wasn’t a particularly good story to read for falling asleep, but it was an excellent concluding activity to nail home this learning objective, which is not that all technology is evil or that I (we) should shun all forms of social media but rather that if my (our) days and minutes are numbered, I want to consider my choices wisely.  I am still going to check social media and play Words With Friends, but I am also going to be intentional about turning off my phone at day’s end, I’m going to engage with the people in the room, I’m going to have a cup of tea with my husband, I’m going to read good books, and I’m going to appreciate the sunshine.

 

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Psalm 90:12 NIV*

 

*I finished writing this blog and went to find the address for this very verse on Biblegateway.  To my surprise, it is the verse of the day.  Perhaps this lesson, too, will be ongoing.